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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sid Borgia - A Man That Changed The Course of Dodger History

Sid Borgia
His influence in sports had to do with officiating.   Where he really made his mark was in the NBA. He officiated there from 1946-64 and then became the league’s supervisor of officials from 1964-66.  When the ABA formed, he was hired as chief of officials in the new league.  So what did this man have to do with the Dodgers?  Well its a good thing that Borgia had the memory of an elephant.
As was the case back in the 1950s, sports officials were always looking for another gig. Due to the low pay they received, ($40/game at the time),  it wasn’t inconceivable that a referee in the NBA would moonlight in the off-season as an umpire in minor league baseball.  Such was the case with Sid Borgia in 1950 as he umpired an International League game between the Dodger Triple A affiliate Montreal Royals and the Rochester Red Wings in New York.
It was a controversial game.  Borgia was really getting yelled at from the Montreal bench.  He ejected 7 players and continued to receive a barrage of insults from the bench.  Borgia recalls one individual that was particularly noticeable with his verbal assaults throughout the game.  “He didn’t know if I was Irish, Jewish, Italian or what.”  It didn’t matter though, the player was relentless with his insults towards the umpire calling Borgia every ethnic slur he could muster in his mind.  It worked, because it got under his skin, for years it turned out.   “It was Lasorda,” said Borgia.  And he’d never forget it.

Tommy Lasorda as a Montreal Royal, 1952

(Steve, Rushin, "This Zebra Turned Dodger Blue," Sports Illustrated, Oct. 22, 1990)

So the years passed.  Lasorda had a fine minor league career and a few call ups to the majors.  He coached a little bit and the Dodgers signed him as a scout by the early 1960s in the Pennsylvania region.  Always looking to make a little extra money, Lasorda’s boyhood friend Earl Strom suggested that he officiate basketball games.  He took up his friend’s offer in a rough basketball circuit known as the Eastern League in Pennsylvania.  Players in this league were moonlighters that were quick to fight and give a lot of lip to officials.  Apparently, Lasorda held his own there as a referee.  Strom described it as a place where “you fought your way out of the gym every night.”

Earl Strom, NBA Hall of Fame Referee, he passed away in 1994
Figuring that if Lasorda could survive the Eastern Basketball League as an official, Strom lobbied the supervising official of the NBA to hire him.  That man, was Sid Borgia.  His eyes lit up when Lasorda’s application was brought across his desk. “Now, I’ve got him,” he thought.  “Now he can take some of the abuse that he gave me,”   Sid Borgia then set up Lasorda’s audition for the league, knowing full well he’d never pass the test he would give him.  It was a true set up for failure.
Lasorda was assigned to officiate four exhibition games between the Detroit Pistons and the Cincinnati Royals partnered with veteran referee Jim Duffy.  Duffy was a tough referee that was known to use a lot of profanity while performing his duties.  Borgia believed that teaming Duffy with Lasorda for four games, would result in a total cuss-fest.  What he knew and Lasorda didn’t know was that an influential coach in the games he would officiate would not tolerate that behavior.
Cincinnati head coach Charlie Wolfe was a religious man.  Someone that refrained from uttering the Lord’s name in vain.  He was quick to become offended by salty language.  Borgia knew all these facts.  Tagging Lasorda with foul mouthed Duffy in a game against  the puritanical Wolfe was a recipe of disaster for the wanna-be referee Lasorda.  After two games, Wolfe was on the phone to the NBA offices complaining of the “foul mouthed” referees assigned to his games. “You’ve got to get them out of here” he told Borgia, who quickly obliged his request.
Thus ended Lasorda’s career as a basketball referee.  Within a few months of this event, Al Campanis moved Lasorda to Southern California as a scout and then he slowly climbed the ladder within the organization to eventually be named manager in 1976.
Would Lasorda have taken the gig as an NBA ref in 1964 had the job been offered to him?  Absolutely he would have.  He was making next to nothing as a scout, and always the showman, Lasorda would have loved the limelight.
It is interesting all the twists and turns in life that seem inconsequential, how they can affect so many.

More interesting notes on Sid Borgia:

He passed away in 1999, his son Joseph was an NBA official and now is an NBA Executive Vice President, in charge of Referee Operations.

Known as a pioneer in establishing the NBA, Borgia was quoted as saying that they first operated without a rule book.

"When I came into the league, they didn't have a rule book.  They handed us a college rule book and said we'd follow these rules with certain exceptions.  When it came to zone defenses, the rule said 'no zone defenses allowed.'  It was up to us to decide what was a zone.   We eventually decided that  a zone meant that a defensive player could not stand in the lane for more than three seconds, unless he was guarding someone.  The early officials were the pioneers in figuring out how this game should be called."

Terry Pluto, Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, Simon and Schuster, 1994

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